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Incarcerated Interactions

A Theory-Driven Analysis of Applied Prison Communication


Edited By Erik D. Fritsvold and Jonathan M. Bowman

Incarcerated Interactions: A Theory-Driven Analysis of Applied Prison Communication is an innovative, applied edited book that uses core interdisciplinary social science theories to analyze and describe the social psychology and sociology of communicative interactions amongst incarcerated individuals. Beginning with the fundamentals of human interactions, this edited volume allows scholars across a variety of disciplines (such as criminology, sociology, communication studies, social psychology, anthropology, and economics) to become familiar with and apply the core principles and the requisite terminology of human communication within a criminological context. Each of the four sections of the text not only build upon the knowledge structures of previous chapters, but also function as stand-alone analyses and/or applications of extant scholarship within essential contexts. From a general discussion of core social science theory to the specific application of that theory in a range of scholarly contexts, this book addresses relevant issues such as mental illness and wellness, the gendered experience of inmates, recidivism rates, violence, the criminogenic effect of incarceration and the large-scale implications of prison gangs and their associated cultural influence, to name a few.

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4. The Mean World Syndrome & Newcomer Strategies : Alli Chlapaty

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4. The Mean World Syndrome & Newcomer Strategies


Imagine you were recently convicted of a felony and are facing substantial time in prison for the first time, but the only knowledge you have of the prison system is what you see on television. Violence, gangs, murder, grizzly repeat offenders of crimes you can’t even imagine. How would this affect how you assimilate into prison life? Is the picture in your head even close to the reality of prison? In 1994, the California Three Strikes Law was enacted with heavy media attention to the terribly violent crimes that sparked its writing (Borland, 1994). Although these are true events, many believe that the intense focus on violent crime and the victims of these crimes generates a phenomenon known as the “mean world syndrome,” where people believe they are more at risk to being a victim of a crime than they actually are and that crime is more wide spread than it actually is (Gerbner et al., 1976). If the majority of people believe that the world is more dangerous than it is, how would that affect those who are going to be living among the people perpetrating these crimes? This paper explores the syndrome and its impact upon perceptions of crime and those who commit them as well as how the authors of the California Three Strikes Law used this syndrome to ensure its passage by California voters. Additionally, this paper explores how people new to the prison system perceive the system and how that may affect their actions and interactions once incarcerated.

Mean World & Television’s Impact

The Mean World Syndrome was first explained by Gerbner et al. in 1976 when he studied the interaction between television watching and general ← 43 | 44 → beliefs of the world in which viewers lived. This widely-studied phenomenon explains how media presentations of crime cause many to believe that crime is more violent and widespread than actual. At the time the theory was developed, television was in its relative infancy and Gerbner reacted to the growing amount of dramatized violence during primetime and the “family hour” by studying the impact of that violence upon a variety of people. Gerbner et al. (1976) discovered that people who watched more television were more likely to display greater degrees of mistrust and believe more in their personal danger than those who watched little television. This was also correlated with lower educational attainment, but having a college degree did not drastically change people’s false perceptions of crime. People who are heavy television watchers are also more likely to have cultivated a distorted view of how many crimes occur each year and who the victims of those crimes are (Vandiver et al., 1997). The stories that television watchers see on a regular basis impact people’s ideas about reality, in part contributing to the extent that television-watchers and non-television-watchers have been shown to be have different perceptions. (Gerbner, 1998) Such beliefs lead to a general insecurity that may influence the way people react to legislation that affects sentencing (Cavallaro, 1998), or to the behavior of incarcerated individuals who have already been sentenced. As discussed in Chapter Three, the socializiation process in prison includes learning about the group’s norms, values and expected behavior, gaining knowledge of how to assume a role within the group, and learning what is important to the group.

An individual who is pre-socialized through media consumption likely changes the existing group and may influence group dynamics by simply adapting to and learning about group norms. (Anderson et al., 1999) Many studies have been done to explain how newcomers adapt to their new circumstances, but the majority of studies have been focused on work environments. Although very different from the experience of prison (hopefully), the basic strategies used can be extrapolated into different situations. Reichers (1987) suggests that socialization is a process that both the newcomers and the established members hope to go quickly because this reduces anxiety in finding an identity within a group and allows the group to more quickly focus the newcomer on job performance. The rate of newcomer socialization is dependent on how proactive both newcomers and established members are when it comes to having meaningful interactions related to the organization. Jones (1983) further explains that newcomers are heavily influenced by their previous biographical experiences. These preconceived notions affect the tactics a newcomer will use and the biases that exist in these actions. He suggests that these forces may be even stronger than the forces of organizational culture. ← 44 | 45 → Jones also claims that the strength of the groups socialization techniques will change the rate of newcomer socialization.

California Three Strikes Law: What It Is & Why It Passed

In the 1970s, there was a widespread shift in sentencing schemes in the United States from one dominated by judge discretion and parole boards to mandatory sentencing. This was done, in large part, to ensure that punishment for specific crimes was proportional to the seriousness of the offense and that similar sentences were given for similar crimes, eliminating some degree of discrimination. California adopted determinate sentencing in 1976 with the passage of the Uniform Determinant Sentencing Law. (Lowenthal, 1993)

The California Three Strikes Law was enacted in 1994 following the attacks of two young California girls by repeat offenders. Kimber Reynolds was 18 years old in 1991 when she was shot and killed while two ex-cons tried to steal her purse. In 1993, Polly Klaas, a 12 year old girl, was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a repeat, violent offender. (Borland, 1994) Following this, California, and subsequently many other states, passed a mandatory sentencing bill to keep repeat offenders behind bars for longer periods of time. A “strike” under California’s 1994 sentencing scheme is any serious or violent felony. If an offender has been convicted of one “strike” and that offender then commits any felony, the mandatory sentence is twice the original sentence under the determinant sentencing laws. If that same individual has been convicted of two serious or violent felonies, then commits a third felony of any classification, they receive a third strike and a mandatory 25 to life sentence. Although this is not unique to the California penal system, the severity of it and the way in which the law was passed is. (Sutton, 2013)

This law and the murders that sparked the writing of the law were used in extensive media campaigns to pass the law both by the republican Governor or California, Pete Wilson, who used his tough opinion on crime via this law as a part of his reelection strategy, and state senate democrats who used the quick passage of the law to try and use a “bipartisan” veil around the law and undermine Wilson’s reelection campaign. (Zimring et al., 2002) Eight months after California’s Three Strikes Law was signed into law by Governor Wilson, Proposition 184 was passed by voters (Zimring et al., 2002), with over 70% voting yes (California Proposition 184, 2014).

As of June 30, 2013, over 42,000 prisoners in California were second or third strike offenders (80% second strikers, 20% third strikers). The most common crime committed receiving a second or third strike is robbery. (California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, 2013) California has ← 45 | 46 → a long-standing problem of overcrowded prisons. California’s Three Strikes Law further exacerbates this problem by locking up thousands for 25-to-life sentences. (Rosynsky, 2011) This problem will only continue as more people are convicted of second or third strikes, keeping the inmates in for longer periods of time with no chance of releasing people who no longer pose a risk to society after a portion of their sentence.

In 2012, Proposition 36 was passed to reform California’s Three Strikes Law (Carter, 2012). This proposition stipulates that in order to be classified as a strike, all felonies on the individual’s record must be serious or violent unless the felony was for rape, murder or child molestation. There is a stipulation for re-sentencing of individuals who are in prison for a second or third strike that is not serious or violent, not committed using a firearm, and a judge deems that the individual is not a threat to society. (Proposition 36 Three Strikes Law) This proposition was passed by voters in reaction to both the high costs of housing prisoners for such long periods of time unnecessarily and for the human rights aspect that some prisoners have sentences that vastly outweigh their crime. (Stanford Law School)

Passage of laws such as this are achieved through the instillation of fear in voters. The general trend in public perception of sentencing is one of greater punishment despite the high cost. Many see the courts as inefficient and are likely to support measures that they perceive as protecting themselves and their community. Others see criminals are moral deviants, and therefore, wish to see harsher punishments. (Tyler et al., 1997)

Impact of Three Strikes & Mean World Syndrome on Newcomers

There are many intricacies when explaining both California’s Three Strikes Law and the mean world syndrome in relation to the actual lived prison experience. This law likely affected the newcomers preconceived notions of prison in 1994 when this law was in the media, and then the indirect effects of the law impacted assimilation into prison culture from 1994 until now. As this law has not been a part of a media storm to the same extent it was in the early 1990s, we need focus our use of the mean world syndrome primarily for prisoners sentenced at this time. However, California’s Three Strikes Law has contributed to the great overcrowding of prisons in California, a factor that will affect how a person is socialized and seeks patrons in the beginning times of their sentence. Although both men and women can be criminals and second or third strikers, the analysis for this paper is based on previous research associated primarily with male prison life. (See Trammell, 2012) ← 46 | 47 →

The way in which California’s Three Strikes Law was passed clearly invokes the mean world syndrome. The incidents that fueled the law were those that would make anyone upset because they involved two innocent, young girls. The fear that this instilled in the voters likely comes from a place of worry for their own lives or the lives of their loved ones. Although these cases were widely viewed as horrific, the majority of people incarcerated under three strikes are not murderers or rapists, but rather robbers and those who possessed or sold drugs (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2013). This does not diminish the crimes that this law intended to punish more harshly, but shows that the media’s depiction of the danger of the world may have had a large affect on how quickly this law passed and how it was able to go through with major flaws.

It is important to understand the context of how the law passed to develop ideas of how this could affect the culture inside of the prison and those who will be incarcerated for the first time. When someone enters prison for the first time, the socialization process quickly leads one to decide with whom one will interact with and who to avoid. It is a two-way process where the new inmate must decide to join a gang or keep to oneself. If the prisoner decides to join a gang, the gang must accept him and then teach him their norms. Under California’s Three Strikes Law, the overall prison population will continue to rise (unless there is new legislation releasing inmates or decriminalizing some more minor crimes), and the leaders of these prison gangs will gain experience and power. This could increase the power of the gangs and, thus, the importance of seeking patrons to learn norms even more important to a newcomer. The leader of the gang may also be more able to teach norms and more powerful to punish those who break them when they are serving such a long sentence. The overcrowding that California’s Three Strikes Law contributes to may also increase anxiety of new prisoners. As Reichers (1987) suggested, both the newcomer and existing members want the socialization process to be fast to reduce anxiety. In prison’s anxiety-inducing context, this desire will be further exacerbated, especially when the proximity of rival gangs and groups is made smaller by the sheer number of people inhabiting a space is growing so quickly.

However important socialization by the group is, as Jones (1983) suggests, what can be more important is the background of the person entering the group. In times when television media is such a transcending medium of information sharing, what is learned from these series is likely to form at least one side of a person’s knowledge. Gerbner et al. (1976) also stated that the effects of mean world syndrome were stronger for people with lower education levels. As educational attainment and criminal activity are inversely related (Justice Policy Institute, 2007), it is a possibility that people who are ← 47 | 48 → incarcerated are, therefore, more likely to believe in a meaner world. These individuals may have also came from an area with high crime rates to begin with, and, thus, can have a great breadth of preconceived notion of felons. In contrast, in the United States, people with lower educational attainment levels are also less likely to vote (Gallego, 2010), so it cannot always be assumed that a person entering prison has knowledge of the law. In the early 1990s when California’s Three Strikes Law was being debated and exploited by political media campaigns, those who saw the commercials may have expected that the people who were reflected in the advertisements were the majority of people who would be encountered in prison. It may have also instilled greater fear that many people in prison are violent repeat offenders, in for long sentences, and likely to have gained power from their violent past and the long amount of time spent gaining and maximizing power. This fear leads to the anxiety mentioned previously and can lead a newcomer to two options. Either (1) seek immediate protection from these types of violent offenders and expect they would be numerous and easily identified, or (2) try to avoid these types of people, not realizing that most people are not second or third strikers and even if they are, they are likely not as violent as expected. This would change initial notions, actions and expectations of a new prisoner trying to find their niche.

There are also informal rules of prison that transcend all of the gang structures. One aspect is that prisoners convicted of certain types of crimes against women and children are basically ostracized from the overall population (Trammell, 2012). As the media campaign for California’s Three Strikes Law focused on this side of crime, someone who has been influenced by these advertisements may overestimate the number of people in the prison who have committed these types of crimes. Knowing that these types of people are basically untouchables, a new prisoner may over-inflate their expectation of how many people will need to be avoided or even informally punished for the type of crime they committed. These initial ideas of the informal culture of prison mixed with the overestimation of these types of offenders can cause new prisoners to expect and prepare for a higher percentage of vigilante justice than may be realistic. The norms of the prison may also not be in line with the typical treatment of these types of offenders, so expecting a large number of them and expecting that they are outcast or even beaten for their crimes may get the newcomer in trouble with the established norms of the prison.

Moving Forward

The California Three Strikes Law has many impacts on the overall functioning of the informal power and group dynamics of a typical prison. Because it ← 48 | 49 → has been found that many people, especially those of lower education status, are likely to view the world through the violent lens provided by the media. California’s Three Strikes Law ad campaigns provide a great example of these types of fears. Even if the media campaign did not affect a person in this way, the consequences of the law, such as overcrowding and growing numbers of prisoners serving long sentences, are unavoidable for interaction with in prison. These factors change the dynamics of group adjustment and socialization by intensifying the anxiety that fuels them. It may also add to the power of the people a new prisoner would seek out to learn the norms of the particular prison he finds himself in for his sentence.

In further analyses of this topic, it would be important to explain the racial demographics associated with the advertising and sentencing that occurred as a result of this law. It is known that the two cases evoked in the advertising were of crimes against white females, who are often portrayed as victims, where minorities are often portrayed as suspects in the media (Bauman, 2010). These dynamics can change the way in which the media campaigns were perceived by different groups and how they react to them in an incarcerated situation. However, in this context of this analysis, these dynamics are too complicated to cover fully. Further analysis could also cover the voting tendencies of prisoners and how that affects how legislation pertaining to their situation is perceived.


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